As kids, many of us receive our first introduction to popular culture through fairy tales, with classic stories like Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, and the Three Little Pigs all captivating us throughout our younger years. Exactly where, when and how these fables first came into existence has been the subject of much debate over the years, although new research reveals that some fairy tales may be much older than previously thought, with one dating all the way back to the Bronze Age.
Folklorist Sara Graça da Silva and anthropologist Jamshid Tehrani sought to determine the origins of 275 stories classified as Tales of Magic according to the Aarne Thompson Uther (ATU) Index – a catalogue of over 2,000 “international tale types” distributed among more than 200 societies around the world. Their report is published in the Royal Society Open Science journal.
To conduct their investigation, they utilized phylogenetic methods, which are typically used by biologists to map the evolutionary roots of certain population characteristics, but have also been employed to trace the origins of cultural phenomena such as language.
First, the researchers examined the ways in which the structure of fairy tales relate to the various Indo-European language groups in which they are spoken. The fact that many fairy tale structures are present in multiple language groups indicates that that these stories must have originated at a point in time before these groups diverged from one another. Therefore, by looking at the languages that share the same story types, and seeking out the common ancestor of these languages, the researchers sought to trace the history of these fairy tales.
The Brothers Grimm were among the first to claim that modern fairy tales are in fact derived from ancient stories that exist across the Indo-European region. Raelene G via Wikimedia Commons
Using data from previous phylogenetic analyses into the evolutionary tree of Indo-European languages, they were able to find that some popular fairy tales, such as Beauty and the Beast, were likely to have originated around 3,000 to 4,000 years ago. Though the modern version of the story was first published in 1740, the study shows that the structure of the tale is replicated in a number of different fables across the Indo-European region, and that this particular linguistic form derives from a common language that existed before the divergence of modern language groups.
Amazingly, the researchers also discovered that one particular story, entitled The Smith and the Devil, can be traced all the way back to Bronze Age, and has its roots in the Proto-Indo-European language, which sits at the base of the Indo-European language tree.
Since this particular tale concerns a metal-worker who makes a deal with the devil, the study authors suggest that it provides evidence of metallurgy 6,000 years ago, when Proto-Indo-European nomadic tribes first began to expand across the region from the Pontic steppe.
As such, the study authors claim to have proved right the much-debated assertion first made by the famous Brothers Grimm, who said that the stories they wrote were not their own, but the “remnants of an ancient Indo-European cultural tradition that stretched from Scandinavia to South Asia.”
Perhaps now storytellers will be able to be a little more specific than “Once upon a time…"